Bill Mollison's Wisdom Lives On

by: EJ on 10/04/2016

Bill Mollison, widely recognised as the father of permaculture, died in Australia on September 24th 2016.  Mollison's system of permaculture, permanent agriculture, rose in prominence after the publication of Permaculture One  with David Holmgren in 1974.  In 1978 he founded the Permaculture Institute and since that time, permaculture has grown into an internationally recognised system of agriculture, widely embraced as solution for sustainable development.

Today we would like to honour Bill Mollison with this post about the origins of permaculture from the newly released The Permaculture Transition Manual: A Comprehensive Guide to Resilient LivingIllustrations are from Crystal Steven's permaculture book, Grow Create Inspire: Crafting a Joyful Life of Beauty and Abundance.

Permaculture: designing for a sustainable future

Permaculture had its origins in the mid-1970s when university tutor and mentor, Bill Mollison, and student David Holmgren developed a range of strategies with the ultimate goal of a permanent agriculture, or permaculture. While the underpinning foundation of permaculture was the production of permanent food crops, it developed into an all-encompassing framework about all aspects of human settlement. It became permanent culture.


“Permaculture” was coined after J Russell Smith’s book Tree Crops — A Permanent Agriculture, first published in 1929. There are many books about permaculture, including a couple of my own, that deal with the basic concepts and principles on which permaculture is based. Throughout this text there will be some elaboration on permaculture design strategies and principles, but the focus here is all about practical solutions, and the relevance of permaculture in our society.


Permaculture is certainly about growing enough food and having a lifestyle that will enable you to become self-reliant (and not self-sufficient as some would believe) and less dependent on the marketplace and agencies outside of our control. But permaculture is more than this: it is about how we live, the types of houses we build, ways in which we can live more sustainably, and how we deal with water, energy, soil and living things.

Permaculture is fundamentally a vocation, a way of life. It is about taking responsibility for your life and doing the things you feel are important for your own wellbeing and for the wellbeing of others and to help the environment. Permaculture is not just about forest gardening or about mimicking natural ecosystems, although at times most of us use these phrases to explain what permaculture is in a simple sentence or two. We forget that permaculture advocates rainwater harvest, graywater reuse, renewable energy systems, and much more, all of which have nothing to do with forest gardens or natural ecosystems. We should always start our discussion about permaculture as a design approach to create edible, functioning, integrated landscapes that support all life, including humans.


Our aim should be to build productive landscapes that will take care of us while we take care of it. Permaculture doesn’t have its own set of techniques, but rather a bag of tricks, tricks that are really principles and strategies to enhance vulnerable ecologies.

As we discussed in the above, concerns like global warming and climate change, food security and peak oil will have major impacts on our future survival. Permaculture is seen by many people as providing strategies to enable us to adapt to a challenging future. How important it will be to us only time will tell, but there is a huge re-interest in permaculture throughout the world as people begin to understand how our environment is changing and how we are totally dependent on oil.

Permaculture is a sensitive process for designing sustainable systems for living. It is based on a collection of the new and old experiences of huge numbers of people, all over the world.

But it is more than a collection — it is about how each item in this collection, be it a technique, a species or a piece of knowledge, can be placed in relation to another to make the system more resilient and better able to meet the needs of the people within it.


Permaculture is often described as strategies to work in harmony with nature (which is true), but it is more than this. It complements nature and it works alongside nature to develop integrated, self-sustaining, resilient systems that can produce all of our needs. At times we may be able to tweak nature to allow us to improve plant and animal species (mainly for our own needs, of course) and to influence our environment by large-scale reforestation projects, which, in turn, would affect water and energy movement in the landscape. We would hope that these practices would not only benefit us but our  world, while still allowing nature to provide those environmental services to benefit everything.

While permaculture books are not gardening books, gardening teaches us life skills that we can’t obtain elsewhere. Gardeners tending their plants have to learn how to respond to the changes in seasons, drought, heat and cold, soil changes and bugs to ensure their plants survive and thrive. We are not oblivious to nature and we can understand what is happening around us, and respond to environmental issues as they occur.  We can be prepared for change as well as being the agents for change. The garden teaches us balance, and permaculture is also about balance — how we integrate our lives with nature, how we juggle input and output to get optimum yields, and how we tend to the needs of all the organisms present in our world so that everything flourishes.


One of the main criticisms of permaculture is the apparent proliferation of introduced plants and animals in gardens, which occasionally escape into bushland. The onus is on people practicing permaculture to carefully avoid oversimplifying the solution to our environmental and food production problems. The belief in permaculture that natural systems and people systems have a capacity to recover from environmental degradation through the introduction of foreign species is apt, but not at the expense of losing genetic diversity or having to deal with a host of other concerns by ecologists. An appropriate management response would be to firstly define the remnant values of an area, inclusive of endemic species, and the risk level of dispersal of an introduced species.  

Bringing these issues to light is not intended to deny permaculture its capacity for adopting a wider view and therefore greater community acceptance. Ecologists, in general, would appreciate permaculture taking a self-critical approach when assessing the risk of introducing any organism into a foreign environment. From an ethical perspective we need to remind ourselves of the importance of having an ecocentric view. This means carefully considering the intrinsic worth of all living things and their right to self-perpetuation, free from human interference. Hopefully, being ecocentric in our approach means greater cultural acceptance of permaculture. An ecocentric worldview is something that legal regulation and human-based environmental education programs have failed to achieve.


And this is where permaculture steps in again: it’s about design. Permaculture practitioners endeavor to design functioning ecosystems with positive enhancements to all the organisms present. Permaculture designs do take time to establish, but once they are implemented they become more and more productive. A larger range of useful products becomes available, the level of maintenance decreases and the system becomes more complex.

Permaculture, and the ecological framework it embraces, will give people hope and enable them to develop skills that allow us to rise to the challenges of a changing world.





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